Bentley is celebrating its 100th year. At Pikes Peak, Colorado, a 12.4-mile rush through 156 bends from 9,300ft to 14,100ft, a Continental GT broke the production car record in 10 minutes 18.5 seconds, an average of 70mph. Last year a Bentley Bentayga shattered the SUV record in 10 minutes 49 seconds. There’s brawn behind the beauty.
Bentley had a fast start in the 1920s when a group of chaps, forever famous as The Bentley Boys, raced the huge open cars. They won the Le Mans 24 Hour Race in 1924 as a private entry and then, with factory support, the races of 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930.
Financial strains weakened demand for Bentley’s expensive cars and it was taken under the wing of Rolls-Royce. In 2003, by then part of the capacious Volkswagen Group, and using Audi’s race-winning technology, it returned to win at Le Mans, followed by another Bentley. They celebrated with dinner at The Savoy, following the menu and drinks served there after the 1927 win.
It’s all rich stuff, high-octane in the vernacular, and this enviable tradition binds us to Bentley. Its German owners have cherished and endorsed its Britishness. From 1919 to 1931 the cars were made in Cricklewood, moving to join Rolls-Royce at Derby as war broke over Europe, then to Crewe where Bentley remains on its own after the split in the joint concern 20 years ago.
Rolls-Royce moved to Goodwood, where it prospers under benevolent BMW ownership. Both marques benefit from German engines and bodies in British hand-built luxury cars.
Century No 2 for Bentley follows a lull in sales last year, down five per cent to 10,494. UK sales fell 15 per cent to 1,356. The Americas dropped 15 points to 2,235, offset by a 19 per cent gain in China to 2,219. Bentley has not released figures for 2019 but data from the SMMT show a 10.5 per cent fall to 966 sales in the first seven months in the UK.
Enough of the reading. I had the car for a long weekend. A disruptive eye test on day one and the village agricultural show on day two meant taking a long drive on day three. It was worth the wait.
While some said the car must be intimidating it wasn’t. It’s very easy to drive and happily easy to judge its place on the road. The surge of power is in supercar league, because that’s what it is, one of the world’s highest performers. Some road tremor filters through the huge Pirelli run-flat tyres.
The exterior is stunning. Camshaft Arms chatter includes the vast mesh grille which is 3ft 2ins wide, the number 12 in the side vents, the large oval rear indicators, the flip-up rear spoiler which is redundant at legal speeds. At night a duo-tone B illuminates the road when the door is opened. There are dated build plates in the door apertures.
The interior is a shimmer of chromed buttons and switches which include the traditional push-pull organ stop ventilation controls. You touch very little plastic here. All the bespoke column stalks are metal. The facing panel and door trim is a high gloss black synthetic. The only wood was on the gear selector.
The starter button is another Bentley B, a typographical style which looks rather like the 8 on a pool ball. The creamy enamel B is set on shiny tooled metal.
The demo car was furnished in wine red leather: lovely. Two average adults should be comfy in the back seats. The windows open, which avoids a feeling of claustrophobia. Headroom is better than expected; legroom depends on average adults in the front.
Now there’s value for money to consider. You’ll see from the facts file that a five-figure sum has gone on safety add-ons. Some of these come in the price of everyday cars and enable them to meet the latest EuroNCAP crash safety ratings. Another £4,700 went on the swivelling dashboard display. This has three faces. When the car is “off” you are looking at a glossy black panel. On start-up this rotates to show a selectable screen of navigation, vehicle functions, car data, audio etc. Being a modern car, this can be repeated in a smaller format behind the steering wheel – useful when you rotate the panel again. This third phase has three handsome analogues dials showing outside temperature, a compass and a journey timer. It’s yours for £4,700.
Verdict: A fabulous end of days for petrol power? The outright Pikes Peak record is 7 minutes 57 seconds in an electric Volkswagen I.D. driven by Romain Dumas. Volkswagen, electric, Bentley, there lies the future.